Art or 'childish graffiti'? Redressing Queen Victoria and Disraeli statues sparks fury on the Mersey

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Queen Victoria was dressed in a cotton and hessian dress by Karen Arthur & Laurence Westgaph - David Edwards
Queen Victoria was dressed in a cotton and hessian dress by Karen Arthur & Laurence Westgaph - David Edwards

The monument to Queen Victoria in Liverpool has cast an imposing figure on the city's Derby Square since it was erected in 1906.

However a new art project, in which the statue was adorned with a brightly coloured cotton dress, has raised eyebrows in the art world, condemned by some as “childish graffiti” and no more artistic than students putting traffic cones on sculptures.

Statues Redressed sees contemporary artists invited to “creatively reimagine some of Liverpool’s most iconic statues” by dressing the existing works or creating new art around them.

Thomas Brock’s 1904 statue of William Gladstone has been wrapped in a flag representing African countries by Larry Achiampong, as a response to the fact that the former prime minister’s “family fortune came from plantations and slavery”.

Meanwhile, the designer Daniel Lismore has draped Charles Bell Birch’s 1883 statue of Benjamin Disraeli with a “Pride-themed Empress of India dress”, pictured below, as a commentary on the Victorian statesman’s “reputation as a flamboyant dresser and a dandy who wrote love letters to men”.

Disraeli was adorned in a Pride-themed Empress of India dress - Sky UK
Disraeli was adorned in a Pride-themed Empress of India dress - Sky UK
Queen Victoria is dressed in cotton and hessian to reflect "Liverpool’s complicity with slavery, and how Queen Victoria and Britain were beneficiaries of that as recently as 150 years ago" - Sky UK
Queen Victoria is dressed in cotton and hessian to reflect "Liverpool’s complicity with slavery, and how Queen Victoria and Britain were beneficiaries of that as recently as 150 years ago" - Sky UK

The Queen Victoria monument was given a cotton and hessian dress by Karen Arthur & Laurence Westgaph. According to the project's website, the material was chosen as, during Victoria's reign, cotton was crucial to Liverpool's economic success, despite being picked by enslaved people in the United States until 1860.

The piece is said to reflect "Liverpool’s complicity with slavery, and how Queen Victoria and Britain were beneficiaries of that as recently as 150 years ago".

For some, though, the interventions are a step too far.

Michael Sandle, a leading sculptor and Senior Royal Academician, believes the project shows a “total lack of respect” for the original statues, their artists and the individuals commemorated.

“This is all wrapped up with tearing down sculptures and political correctness… Appalling decadence," he told The Telegraph.

The fact that the Liverpool interventions are temporary does not placate him: “It’s like students putting traffic cones on sculptures… Anybody who criticises this will be seen as fuddy-duddies or kill-joys. They won’t understand our outrage at the disrespect. These are bloody people who can’t draw.”

Tom Murphy’s 1997 statue of Liverpool’s legendary football manager Bill Shankly at Anfield Stadium has been “redressed" by designer and LUFC fan Nadia Atique by draping “a cape fit for a superhero” on the statue.

But Murphy himself is unimpressed: “I don’t think enough thought went into it. I just felt it was nothing,” he said.

Bill Shankley was given a superhero cape - David Edwards
Bill Shankley was given a superhero cape - David Edwards
Meanwhile Edward Young, who co-wrote a biography of Disraeli, said: “I do think they have missed the point. Disraeli would not have said he was gay." - Sky UK
Meanwhile Edward Young, who co-wrote a biography of Disraeli, said: “I do think they have missed the point. Disraeli would not have said he was gay." - Sky UK

Edward Young, who co-wrote an acclaimed biography of Disraeli, said: “I do think they have missed the point. Disraeli would not have said he was gay. He was mainly in love with himself.

"It’s a bit of a stretch to say he was a warrior for Pride. He certainly wasn’t. It’s us translating our own labels on the past."

Julian Spalding, a former director of galleries and museums in Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow, dismissed it as “childish graffiti given contemporary credibility by trivial wokery”.

Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, which campaigns to protect the integrity of works of art and architecture, said: “This is a culturally wrong-headed and politically cheapskate stunt.

"Architectural and sculptural civic heritage should be respected for what it is and not treated as a playground for parasitical art world exhibitionism and politically illiterate nihilism.”

David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw, the satirical art magazine, described such “trivial intervention [as] symptomatic of the contemporary art world’s routine disrespect for anything historical”.

While John Larson, who headed sculpture conservation at the V&A, said: “I find it disappointing when other people seek to impose their viewpoint or taste on a sculpture, in effect rewriting history.”

For Karen Arthur, one of the artists behind the new interpretation of the Queen Victoria monument, the response is water off a duck's back.

She said: “Critics are entitled to their opinion… I’m just thrilled that we’re talking about statues that usually people walk past and don’t take a blind bit of notice of.”

Liverpool was chosen because of its rich history, with the highest number of statues in the UK outside of London.

The city council gave permission for the project as it owns most of the statues. Robin Kemp, its head of creative for Culture Liverpool, said: “I would, on behalf of the artists, take exception to the idea that what they’ve done creatively is tantamount to putting a traffic cone on… It absolutely is art.”

For the organisers, the cultural service of Liverpool city council and Sky Arts, the unveiling of each statue was an opportunity "to look again, think again, and question how we feel about the public art that surrounds us".

A Statues Redressed documentary will air on Monday on Sky Arts and in it, former National Gallery director Neil MacGregor, says: “Statues are about telling stories and what I think is happening in Liverpool is a new way to engage the citizen in the conversation."

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